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Alan Shatter published the bill today Laura Hutton / Photocall Ireland

Child protection bill published to close sex abuse law loophole

Sentences of over five years in prison could be handed down if found guilty of withholding information.

A BILL AIMING to strengthen child protection measures has been published by the Government this morning.

The proposed legislation will make withholding information in relation to serious crimes against children a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment for at least five years.

The Criminal Justice (Withholding Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012 is just one element of a “suite of legislation” to protect young people and vulnerable adults, said Minister for Justice Alan Shatter.

The 2012 Bill will ensure there is an obligation on persons who have knowledge of any serious offence including sexual offences against children and vulnerable adults to inform the Gardaí.

The offences specified in the Bill include most sexual abuse crimes, as well as acts such as violence causing harm, abduction, manslaughter and murder.

The primary purpose of the proposed legislation is to close an existing loophole in current mandatory reporting law as sexual offences were not included in the provisions of the 1998 Offences Against the State Act.

Therefore, withholding information in relation to the sexual abuse of children was not a crime.

However, the new Bill will also provide for a number of potential defences for people who have failed to disclose information. A person can defend his/her inaction if the victim has requested the information not to be disclosed or if he/she is acting in the interests of the health and well-being of the child.

The defences set out in this Bill seek to protect the victims of serious offences as much as provide a defence for those who legitimately act in the best interest of a victim. This Bill should not deter victims of serious offences from seeking the help and assistance they need in addressing the harm and damage caused to them.

“The Cloyne and Ryan Reports have clearly demonstrated the need to strengthen our law in regard to the disclosure of information regarding offences against children,” said Shatter on publishing the Bill. “It is not acceptable that there can be a cloak of secrecy surrounding such offences or offences against other vulnerable persons in our society.”

The Bill does not allow for retrospective charges to be made against people who previously withheld information if that information has since been received.

Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald also announced plans to put the Children First Guidelines on a statutory basis. This places an obligation on those working with or having access to children to report to the HSE incidents of neglect, abuse or allegations of abuse with a view to ensuring an appropriate response.

The publication of the Heads of the Bill has been welcomed by numerous advocacy groups including the National Youth Council of Ireland, the ISPCC, Campaign for Children and the Children’s Rights Alliance.

The ISPCC, which has called for mandatory reporting guidelines to be put on a statutory footing for years, said the failure to provide for the guidelines in law resulted in their “patchy and inconsistent” implementation in recent years.

Campaign for Children called the publication a “significant step forward for child protection”.

However, executive director of the campaign Bart Storan noted that it is just one of many steps need to ensure Ireland fulfils its responsibilities to children.

“For too long we have allowed vulnerable children to be overlooked and their best interests ignored. Over the last 20 years, we have seen 16 separate statutory reports, detailing the horrific abuse and neglect suffered by children in in Ireland. These reports outline how we as a society have failed to protect the most vulnerable of our children,” he added.

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